AMN 37,1 Program News

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Home Antarctic MeteoritesAntarctic Meteorite NewslettersAMN 37,1 Program News
Volume 37 No. 1 – February 2014

Program News

Curator Comments

Kevin Righter, NASA-JSC

This newsletter reports 545 new meteorites from the 2010 ANSMET season from the Dominion Range (DOM10) and La Paz Ice Field (LAP10) areas. Samples announced in this newsletter will be of great interest to those studying chondrites, because they include detailed descriptions for seven new carbonaceous chondrites (2 CO, 4 CR and 1 CV), an enstatite chondrite (EL6), and four impact melt breccias (2 L, one LL, and one H). The 2010 season samples have been fully characterized at JSC, and the remaining samples from this season will be announced in the Fall 2014 newsletter.

Reminder about new rules for PIs: loan agreements and annual inventories

This past summer we started two new policies regarding the loans of Antarctic meteorites from the US collection at NASA JSC. All scientists will have to: a) complete an annual inventory, and b) complete a valid loan agreement if you are currently holding or wishing to request samples from our collection. Many of you have followed through on these two new policies and we appreciate your efforts to do so. For those of you who have not, we would like to receive your annual inventories and loan agreements (if still holding samples) as soon as possible. We will send out reminders to those who have not completed either or both of these requirements.

These two new policies are explained in detail in our new Antarctic Meteorite Sample Investigators Guidebook.

If you are downloading forms from our webpage, there is an instruction page at the beginning of the loan agreement form. Please do not try to enter data into the instruction page (with yellow highlights)—you must enter information in the grey boxes on the pages following the instructions, as described in the instructions. This is the most common difficulty people are having with the forms, so please follow the instructions and don’t just skip them.

A synopsis of the 2013-2014 ANSMET season; looking for the bright side

Ralph Harvey, Principal Investigator, ANSMET

Both ANSMET (the US Antarctic Search for Meteorites program) and the US Antarctic Program (USAP) faced some of their biggest challenges in decades during the just-completed 2013-2014 field season. In the end both ANSMET and USAP managed to get some great science done, but compromises and logistical shortages had their impacts.

Two longer-term challenges became obvious about a year ago. The “Sequester”, the mandated reduction in US government spending (and worth noting, purposefully designed by Congress to hurt) caused some serious aches and pains within USAP and the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, both mandated to support US activities in Antarctica. The result was planned cutbacks in terms of aerial support, a key lifeline for the program.

Warming was the second challenge; but instead of the broad climate change you might first think of, it was more of a local issue. For most of the past 15 years a giant iceberg has been blocking northward iceflow in the southernmost reaches of the Ross Sea, and as a result the McMurdo Sound area retained significantly more sea-ice than usual. This in turn provided relatively cold local conditions and allowed USAP to use their Pegasus airfield (an ice-based compacted-snow runway suitable for very large wheeled aircraft) throughout the austral summer. But the big iceberg went away three summers ago, and the relative warming that resulted meant that the Pegasus runway has returned to a “normal” condition, too soft at the height of summer. Together these longer-term issues meant a reduced availability of ski-equipped cargo planes AND no ability to augment them with wheeled aircraft throughout the height of summer, putting serious strain on USAP’s aerial transport capabilities from both the science support and station support directions. With these issues in mind, USAP carefully reduced the overall number and support level of science projects, and it all seemed doable if somewhat spartan.

ANSMET 2013-2014 Field Team

The reunited 2013-2014 ANSMET field team, finding meteorites. From left to right: Jani Radebaugh, Alex Meshik, John Schutt, Jim Karner, Steve Ballou, Barbara Cohen, Morgan Martinez, Manavi Jadhav.

Typically the Antarctic field season ramps up in late August and early September, with people and cargo start flying down en masse in a surge called “Winfly”. Because of the sequester, 2013’s surge was purposefully delayed and reduced in intensity, essentially spread throughout late September. Then the “Shutdown” hit on October 1, at the worst possible time for Antarctic operations. Hitting when it did, the Shutdown meant that almost overnight USAP had to reverse course 180 degrees, not only stopping preparations for a summer of science and exploration but turning it into a race against time, preparing McMurdo and South Pole to survive a full year without resupply. Of course the shutdown ended a few weeks later, but it had to be taken very seriously with hundreds of lives and millions of dollars at great risk, and the damage to the 2013-2014 season was severe. What was to be a modest season with reduced goals became triage; scramble to rescue at least a few scientific programs rather than shut down US Antarctic science entirely for the first time in 6 decades.

At first it looked like all of this would have a relatively modest effect on ANSMET. We don’t routinely enter into USAP’s plans for October; we usually get to McMurdo in late November and into the field in early December, given our fieldwork demands the best possible weather at the height of the austral summer. This was also our first season as a project wholly funded by NASA, and all the agencies involved really wanted to make this new funding paradigm work. Last spring we worked with USAP and its contractors to reduce our logistical needs, and then we did it again in late October. The resulting plan was appropriately frugal, with one less field party member, a reduced schedule of mid-season flights, and a season shortened by nearly a half.

As our expected late November departure approached, it became clear that meeting even these modest plans would be a challenge. We’re very used to dealing with this kind of uncertainty, and because our work doesn’t depend on hitting any specific targets on specific days (we have very flexible launch windows), we’ve learned to be patient. Timetables shifted, and when the dust settled half of our team made it to our target (the venerable Miller Range) right on time, with the remaining team and gear to follow the next day.

And then it became the next day, and then the next, and then the next week, and in the end it became next month. The shortage of air crews, mechanical problems in a limited fleet and the increasing demand on ski-equipped airplanes to supply both McMurdo and South Pole, when mixed in with weather and landing strip conditions, left four members of our team and several critical pieces of gear in McMurdo, while the other four team members sat at Miller Range. With only three snowmobiles and limited fuel, the latter managed to do some searching, but with only minimal collection gear they simply had to flag the meteorites and wait. And waiting was pretty much all the folks in McMurdo could do. It wasn’t until early January, just after New Year’s Day, that the team was reunited. USAP graciously let us add time back into our shortened season, giving us at least a couple of weeks of searching by the full team.

In the end, the team made the most of their shortened season, recovering over 300 samples, including many VERY interesting specimens (you’ll have to wait a few months to hear about those). We’ve been asked several times if it was worth it, and personally I think it was; if you’re not willing to face risks like the weather, tough schedules and general uncertainty, you’re not going to recover meteorites. I won’t lie to you; personally I’m glad I chose this year to stay home. But I’m much happier that the ANSMET team persevered, found a way to successfully recover meteorites, and if even a few of those interesting specimens are what we think they are, I think you’ll be very happy too.

AND NEWS JUST IN. The tribulations continue. We learned just a few days ago that in the last days of January a storm did severe damage to McMurdo Station’s ice dock, preventing a significant amount of cargo from being loaded onto the annual cargo ship. Among the cargo that now cannot sail home were multiple freezer vans, including the one containing the 2014 ANSMET meteorites. Federal regulations demand we keep the meteorites frozen; and after exploring many options, it became clear the best way to protect the samples was to leave them in McMurdo until the next northbound cargo ship (due in early 2015). The bright side? I guess now we can expect twice the normal number of extraordinary specimens reported in 2015 fall newsletter..... sigh.